The Bengals are keeping their franchise tag this year.
Michael Johnson and Anthony Collins, the top two possibilities to be tagged prior to the start of the NFL free agency period on March 11, will become unrestricted free agents along with nine other players on the roster unless they and the Bengals come to terms on new contracts. Johnson played last season under the one-year franchise tag contract of $11.175 million and produced perhaps his best all-around season. His sack numbers were down significantly but he is an every-down player who has become much better against the run since entering the league as a third round draft choice in 2009.
Six players throughout the league were tagged this year: Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worilds (transition), Cleveland center Alex Mack (transition), Washington defensive end Brian Orakpo (franchise), New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham, Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy and New York Jets kicker Nick Folk.
Transition tags are worth the one-year average of the top-10 salaries of a given position, while franchise tags are worth the average of the top five contracts. Those players can negotiate with other teams but the original teams have a right to match any offer. Teams receive draft choice compensation if they choose not to match offers made to franchised players.
The cost of a franchise tag on Johnson would be $13.12 million, while Collins would cost $11.65 million.
The Bengals would love to re-sign Johnson and Collins to long-term extensions but the economics of the NFL, even with the salary cap jumping by $10 million to $133 million this year, are the biggest barriers to that happening. They have to look ahead at other players whose contracts will be coming up in the next year, namely wide receiver A.J. Green, quarterback Andy Dalton and linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Burfict is heading into the final year of his rookie contract and has clearly outplayed his status as an undrafted free agent. He led the NFL in tackles and went to the Pro Bowl last year while being named the Bengals MVP by the Cincinnati chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America.
Last year the Bengals were able to re-sign 18 of the 24 potential free agents they had, including right tackle Andre Smith, as well as work out extensions for All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap that kept them off of this year’s free agent market. The extensions for Smith, Atkins and Dunlap mean the Bengals have to look at how they balance the money invested in those position groups.
The potential loss of Johnson is why they drafted Margus Hunt in the second round last year. They also signed veterans Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers to three-year deals.
The Bengals have never been big players in the free agent market. Their strategy is to develop and keep as many of their own players as possible while adding parts here and there after the initial wave of free agency has passed. Besides the 11 players eligible to become unrestricted free agents, the Bengals have three players who may become restricted free agents. They are expected to tender offers to Vinny Rey, Andrew Hawkins and Dane Sanzenbacher prior to the start of free agency if they can’t re-sign them to extensions.
A look at the Bengals heading into free agency:
UFA: DE Michael Johnson, OT Anthony Collins, DB Brandon Ghee, OG Mike Pollak, OT Dennis Roland, S Taylor Mays, DB Chris Crocker, WR Brandon Tate, LB Michael Boley, TE Alex Smith, P Zoltan Mesko.
RFA: LB Vinny Rey, WR Andrew Hawkins, WR Dane Sanzenbacher.